Research brief: Improving youth mentoring with supportive accountability

MentorHub emerged from a deep analysis of  youth mentoring programs and their limitations. Meta-analyses of youth mentoring evaluations present a disappointing trend line. Youth mentoring programs produce small overall effects which have not budged in nearly two decades despite significant research and program investments.

What accounts for these stubbornly low effects?

Compared to national samples, youth who are referred to mentoring programs are at dramatically higher risk for experiencing difficult life circumstances and behavioral and mental health issues. In more marginalized families, mentoring programs are perceived as an alternative to professional care. A 2019 study found that Black caregivers are twice as likely as White caregivers to turn to mentoring programs to address their children internalizing and externalizing struggles, as they see it as less stigmatizing and more culturally congruent to professional mental health services.

How can mentoring programs provide more targeted, evidence-based services?

Smaller, specialized mentoring programs are well-positioned to target specific subgroups (e.g., youth aging out of foster care, unaccompanied refugees), risks (e.g., depression and anxiety, peer rejection), and goals (e.g., civic engagement, college access). Such programs are often incubated in research labs and rely on carefully trained and supervised students and trainees. Because specialized programs have narrow goals, they can train their mentors on a discrete range of approaches and are relieved of the pressures of trying to be all things to all youth.

But specialization doesn’t work for programs serving widely diverse youth (e.g., Big Brothers Big Sisters). Such cannot be expected to have access to the full library of targeted, empirically supported interventions at their disposal. Nor can they be expected to rely on their typical, uncompensated volunteer to deliver evidence-based interventions with fidelity. And, even when such programs do specialize, they can only hit the mark with a subset of their constituents. It is thus completely understandable that they have defaulted to employing nonspecific, lighter-touch friendship models that can be delivered to all youth irrespective of their particular issues.

A new, potentially more scalable approach involves combining mentoring with the growing array of evidence-based, technology-delivered interventions. Although most youth struggle to stick with technology-delivered interventions on their own, their engagement in self-administered programs deepens when blended with coaching and face-to-face support. When supplemented with support, technology-delivered interventions produce outcomes that rival those of face-to-face interventions, often at no cost and in ways that are more geographically, financially, and socially acceptable to youth and their families. This blended mentoring model has the potential to revolutionize how targeted, evidence-based interventions are delivered in large, nonspecific programs. These models shift mentors’ roles from delivering interventions to supporting and practicing the targeted, evidence-based interventions that are delivered through technology.

As  Teachman et al. observed: “Smart-phone interventions could eventually serve as a low-cost, easily accessible, and user-friendly option for universal, selective or indicated preventive programs. Smartphone interventions could also fit within the stepped-care model, in which low intensity interventions are offered as a first step in treatment, with more intensive resources reserved for those who fail to respond.”